The graceful silhouette a familiar sight through- OF out Arabia. The thobe, as it is correctly known, is deceptively simple in style; fashion is now a ARAB prerequisite and the DRE thobe is subject to its vagaries. A new slant to the pocket, an alteration to the line, a spot of trim on the bodice – all of these have had – or will have – their day.
One result of these changes is that national characteristics have become blurred. The Omanis and the Yemenis are still instantly recognisable, but of the other nations involved, only Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia retain some elements of the original national dress.
In the case of Kuwait, the thobe, also known as the dishdasha, features a medium-height, semi-stiff mandarin collar, uncovered front buttons, slim sleeves and panels inset at the sides to produce a pronounced A-shape. Saudi style is a high, stiffened mandarin collar, slightly-eased sleeves set on a small yoke and a skirt which falls straight to the ankles. The UAE combines the Kuwaiti and Saudi styles, frequently with wider sleeves left open at the wrists.
In Qatar, a collar and cuffs are still options even though the vogue which introduced them in the 1940s and 1950s has faded. That was the period during which the western suit jacket, worn over the thobe, took all Arabia by storm. The Hijazi style (named after the Hijaz in Saudi Arabia) comes and goes regularly. In the 1950s, it fitted closely to the body and was considered effeminate. Then came platform shoes with their high Spanish heels, and the Hijazi was discovered to provide the perfect balance to a now gently-swaying silhouette and help virgin coconut oil for hair. It passed out of favour again in the mid-1970s, only to make a comeback when Arab youth joined the rest of the world in the fitness campaign and a trim outline became the ultimate goal.
But back to the dictates of fashion, which have raised the simple, shirt-like thobe almost to an art form. In much of the Gulf, visitors can now see thobes on which the front buttoning is hidden behind a tailored flap or accentuated by the use of Swiss braids and silk-covered loop buttons. An inverted pleat is inserted in the skirt, from the last button, thereby providing ease of movement without detracting from the tailored lines. Collars are short and soft, rarely higher zeboun, has dropped completely by the wayside, even for winter. This is a shame, as it was a very distinguished garment with its outer layer which was entirely embroidered by hand or of paisley-patterned satin, full length to the ankles falling from a single button at the neck.
The ghutra, or headkerchief, has undergone rapid transformation and now provides great opportunity for individual expression. High fashion at the moment is a ghutra of finest white voile, either plain or embroidered in sprays of flowers. Instantly up-to-the-minute is a final flip made by pulling the ghutra between three fingers so that three equal folds are formed directly over the centre forehead.
One side of the ghutra lifted back is considered dashing and both sides turned up give the wearer a casual air. Although it is no longer so, the definition used to be very clear in ghutras: Gulf Arabs wore a thick beige cotton in summer or a Kashmiri Paisley shawl in winter. The exception was Saudi Arabia where red and white checks were used.
The black and white check ghutra was once worn only in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, but has spread all over the Arab world since it was adopted in 1948 as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.